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September 24, 2013Before coach James Franklin arrived, Vanderbilt was just happy to get any win, any time, against anybody. That's what happens when you inherit a program with just one winning season in its last 29 years of football.
Franklin, though, has now become a bit of a victim of his own success. Just a third of the way through his third year, the Commodores are 17-13 under his supervision, and last year's Top 25 finish certainly raised expectations for this year.
Franklin has spoken often about "changing the culture" around Vanderbilt football. It's the perfect "be careful what you wish for" storm, because now, fans are grumbling after the Commodores, a 31-point road favorite at UMass, managed just a 24-7 victory.
"People are not just happy with wins anymore," Franklin said Monday at his weekly press conference, later saying that those kinds of expectations show progress. "They've got to be wins in a convincing matter or a certain style of game. I will take as many as what people call `ugly wins' as we can get. If there is a way to possibly get 15 ugly wins this year, I would love it. I don't know if that's mathematically possible but I'd love them."
Franklin has a valid point, but the truth is, the Commodores' season hasn't matched up with the expectations that come with 15 senior starters off a 9-4 season. Vandy's two wins have been against a pair of 0-4 teams, Austin Peay being the other, that have been out-scored by a combined 191-31 in the six games not involving Vanderbilt.
For some context, the Commodores were 49-point favorites over Austin Peay, and cruised after getting a 38-0 second-quarter lead before winning 38-3. The UMass game was played before a mostly-empty stadium in Foxboro, Mass., on Saturday, and VU never trailed.
However, the Commodores came within an eyelash of beating Ole Miss also, a game which would have changed the complexion of the entire season and made VU 3-1 instead of 2-2. The other loss came on the road, a 10-point defeat at the hands of another ranked team, South Carolina.
Franklin admitted, however, there was some validity to picking flaws within Saturday's victory.
"We'd like to be playing a little bit cleaner," he said on Monday, mentioning before that how penalties had wiped out an interception by Darreon Herring and a long pass from Austyn Carta-Samuels to Jordan Matthews during Saturday's win.
In a rare admission from Franklin, he also made reference to off-field distractions related to rape charges against four former VU football players after Saturday's game. That's been a sideshow for three months now as the case hasn't gone to trial or been settled.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Our defense is probably playing pretty similarly to how it has the previous two years. We've kind of had a bend-but-don't-break mentality in the past. We've done a great job of getting down to the red zone and holding people to field goals. What we've been able to do in the past that hasn't happened as much so far this year is the big plays, the big momentum-turning plays -- the interception returns for touchdowns, things like that, the big sacks, guys getting into field goal range and then multiple sacks to knock guys out of field goal range. If you really look at it defensively, that's the area where we're going to need to improve." -- coach James Franklin, on the difference between previous seasons defensively and this one.
SERIES HISTORY: Vanderbilt and UAB have met just once before, with the Commodores coming out on top, 31-15, in the only meeting in 1996.
Scouting the running game: The Commodores continue to struggle on the ground, ranking 13th of 14 Southeastern Conference teams with 145.5 yards per game. VU's 4.2 yard-per-carry average ranks 12th. UAB has been okay against the run, giving up 160 yards and 4.3 per carry.
Scouting the passing game: The emergence of Jonathan Krause gives Austyn Carta-Samuels a pair of capable targets in the passing game. However, VU still lacks a reliable third option. Vandy has averaged 8.3 yards per pass, but is also tied with Tennessee with a league-leading five interceptions. UAB has picked off seven passes but also gives up a whopping 71.4-percent completion rate and 268.7 yards per game.
Scouting the run defense: The Blazers' Darrin Reaves (122 ypg, 6.9 per carry) presents a threat to the Commodores, who rank 10th in the SEC in rushing defense, and eighth in per-carry average (4.04). However, VU has more trouble stopping mobile quarterbacks, and Austin Brown (nine carries, minus-23 yards) doesn't scare anyone with his feet.
Scouting the pass defense: Vanderbilt is giving up close to a 70 percent completion rate, giving up the short throws but not often getting burned on long throws. UMass completed over 69 percent of its passes Saturday, but averaged just 4.5 yards per attempt. Brown is completing just 52.1 percent of his throws, but has a real weapon in Jamarcus Nelson (16 catches, 301 yards in three games).
Scouting the special teams: VU ranks fifth in the country in kickoff return defense (16.1 yards), though teams have just seven returns against kicker Carey Spear. Vandy isn't getting much done in the return game -- 20.1 yards on kickoffs, 5.7 on punts -- but punter Taylor Hudson (45.3-yard average) has helped Vanderbilt rank ninth nationally (42.9) in net punting. Nelson has a punt return TD this season and averages 21.7 yards there, and another 35.4 on kickoff returns. UAB K Ty Long has struggled a bit (3-6 on field goals) and Hunter Mullins (39.2 yard average) has hit four of his 11 kicks inside the 20.